The war in “War for the Planet of the Apes” takes on a double meaning. The groundwork of the plot is, of course, the inevitable conflict between apes and humans in a post-apocalyptic American landscape. Thematically, war really is hell for everyone involved, namely Caesar, the ape leader who has seen more than a lifetime’s worth of tragedy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown that, in turn, holds the fate of the entire world. Even heavier is the hardship both sides face in this dark time, masterfully realized by a director, cast, and visual effects team at the top of the blockbuster food chain. Leave it to the third entry in a reboot prequel series about talking apes to show us what it means to be human better than any superhero film this year.
Two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan fight against the forces of Alpha-Omega, a human military faction led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). When tragedy hits home, Caesar embarks on a quest for vengeance against the Colonel, leading him to the Alpha-Omega base, where he is eventually taken prisoner, endangering the lives of his fellow apes. Along the way, Caesar encounters the mysteriously mute Nova (Amiah Miller), an orphaned girl, and the bumbling Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) a chimp hermit formerly from the Sierra Zoo. Doom draws near for all, and it’s up to Caesar to decide if his revenge is worth the pain and suffering he must endure to achieve it.
The apes have only gotten smarter over the years, and so has the franchise. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” made its mark as a SyFy Original’s wet dream, elevating its B-movie concept and sensibility with grade-A work on both sides of the camera. “Dawn” edged away from the series’ sci-fi roots with a stronger emphasis on drama and characterization, featuring one of this century’s best on-screen antagonists in Koba, the ape responsible for the events of this film. “War” retains the strengths of its predecessor and enhances them with sterling images, fueled by a bleak color palette, long sullen silences, and a riveting score (more on that later). It is easily the most mature and sophisticated of the trilogy, which closes the book on Caesar’s story in operatic fashion. It is also the most satisfying trilogy end since “The Dark Knight Rises,” and the most emotional since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
If it wasn’t already clear that Matt Reeves, who also helmed “Dawn,” is a master of emotion, here is the final proof. His belief in the power of the image is perhaps stronger than ever. Beats of sadness, dread, levity, and hope are sustained with thousand-yard stares, wide-eyed gazes, and smiles composed by an artist at the height of his powers. His influence is vast, stretching from Vietnam films, westerns, and other period epics like “Schindler’s List.” Who would’ve ever thought we’d see Holocaustic overtones in a “Planet of the Apes” movie? The clearest homage paid is to “Apocalypse Now,” particularly in the character of the Colonel, portrayed with massive understatement by Harrelson. The bloodthirsty soldier has made horror and moral terror his friends, as revealed in the film’s only expository scene. Though a less captivating villain than Koba, he is a significant improvement over the trilogy’s lack of three-dimensional humans.
We’ve known Serkis primarily as the motion-capture performer of our time, but it is high time we hail the man simply as a great actor. There’s more to his Eastwood glare than meets the eye, an appallingly under-appreciated ability to sell tremendous emotion through a skin-tight mo-cap suit that is then transformed into the billions of 1s and 0s that make up Caesar. His work across these three films merits much more than just an Oscar. Much of his success here is matched by his ape co-stars. Karin Konoval is wonderful as the orangutan Maurice, Caesar’s confidant and conscious. Zahn plays Bad Ape, a would-be Jar Jar Binks, with a marvelous degree of loneliness that makes it surprisingly easy to tolerate him as the comic relief. He's what Gollum might have been if the One Ring hadn’t twisted his mind.
The mythical resonance of “War” is brought to beautiful life by the aforementioned components, but there are brief moments where Reeves barely misses his chance to really hammer it home. Tragic outcomes and bursts of violence are slightly rushed or simply underwhelming, but thankfully the overall effect isn’t diminished. This is due to Reeves’s faith in composer Michael Giacchino to flood the space with incendiary cues. Blockbuster scores of late haven’t really had the narrative impact like themes of John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer... until now. From a soft-spoken piano to melancholic choral swells, Giacchino’s score is one of the best ever written for a Hollywood epic. Why we rarely ever get such mesmerizing marriages of image and sound like “War for the Planet of the Apes” should bewilder anyone who spends their hard-earned money on a movie ticket. Cinema was made for films like this. You can find an experience similar to the likes of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” at almost any theme park, but good luck finding an experience like this one anywhere else.